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A proposal to form the first-ever public law school in Massachusetts is triggering controversy among a handful of private law schools. Critics say that a public law school will only burden taxpayers, and that Massachusetts doesn’t need another one. But proponents suspect these critics are afraid of potential competition, and are camouflaging that fear by scaring taxpayers. Supporters also note that Massachusetts is one of only six states in the United States without a public law school, and that one is needed to offer opportunities to poor and middle-class students who live in parts of the state that the Boston schools don’t reach. “I think they believe that it’s a threat to their financial well-being … that [a public law school] could impact the growth of their student body in the future,” said James Karam, board of trustees chairman at the University of Massachusetts, which would run the new law school by acquiring the Southern New England School of Law, located about 60 miles south of Boston in North Dartmouth. “And you don’t hear the Harvards, the Boston Colleges or the Boston Universities saying a word,” Karam said. “What you do hear are the smaller schools giving opposition.” THREE MAIN CRITICS According to Karam and other University of Massachusetts officials, the three main critics of the public law school proposal are Suffolk University Law School, the New England School of Law and the Western New England College School of Law. Officials at both Suffolk and New England law schools declined to comment. Art Gaudio, the dean at Western New England’s law school, said he is most concerned about the proposed school’s financial impact on the state-not competition. He said the proposed law school will cost taxpayers about $5 million a year, disputing proponents’ claims that the plan will not require state funding. “I can say, without question, that there will be a cost to the state in the operation of the school,” said Gaudio, who ran the University of Wyoming College of Law from 1990 to 1996. “I’m concerned that there may be some interest in pushing this idea through without a full airing. All that’s been pushed through is this positive side. There is another side that has not been heard.” Massachusetts currently has nine law schools with tuitions ranging from $19,000 to $30,000. “The University of Massachusetts wants to be considered on the same level as the University of Michigan and Florida and other states that have state institutions. You can’t [compete] without a medical school and a law school,” said Robert Ward Jr., dean at the Southern New England School of Law. Ward said the proposed law school tuition would stay the same, about $19,000 a year. There’s also a plan to give 50 percent tuition discounts to 25 students each year who commit to working five years in public interest law. And as far as burdening taxpayers, Ward asserted a new law school would not cost taxpayers a dime. “We’re not asking the taxpayers to do anything,” Ward said. “Our law school is already generating sufficient revenue to care for itself. I already have a faculty. I already have a building. I already have a library. I already have all the things that a law school requires.” But Gaudio believes that the law school will require more down the road, such as more professors to teach the growing number of students, which is expected to jump from 270 to 450. He also said that the law school’s library is weak and will need updating. Gaudio also doubts that the new school will lure many students with a $19,000 tuition price, which, he says, is far above the $10,800 average tuition at state law schools nationwide. He said that the school would eventually have to drop its tuition to compete nationally, thereby forcing the state to kick in more money to make up for the lost tuition. Meanwhile, the proposed merger is facing a new roadblock. The state attorney general ruled last week that the plan will require a review and approval by the state Board of Higher Education, which had requested an opinion from the AG on its role in the proposed merger. Before the ruling, the UMass board of trustees, expected to approve the deal within the next 30 days, thought it would have the final say on the matter. But the Board of Higher Education, which has the power to approve a new degree by a public institution, is expected to vote on whether there is a need for a public law school in February or March.

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